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Three into Fifty

A recovering music critic, I’m a sucker for milestones. Three legendary jazz albums celebrate their 50th anniversary this week, and I can’t implore you enough to take time out and listen to them. I myself am grateful that I did just that.

Lots of folks don’t know that I’m as obsessed with jazz as I am comic books or electronic music. I’ve listened to each of these records hundreds of times, but never had a a top-notch sound system like I do now, and it was like I was hearing them for the first time. I actually wept at one point during the Mingus record. I’m considering going out tomorrow and spending money I don’t have on the 50th anniversary reissues, because of the alternate takes included.


Charles Mingus’ “Mingus Ah Um” was one of those classic Columbia Jazz records that when you’re first getting into jazz, you check out from a library. At least, that’s how I came upon it first. It’s Mingus exploring his roots and influences. It’s bebop with heavy gospel influences, and blatant, track titled nods to his jazz mentors: Bird, Duke, and Jelly Roll.

“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” is easily Mingus’ most famous work, and it’s here. But the star is track 7, “Fables of Faubus,” which is a song about the Arkansas Governor who refused to allow schools to integrate, until President Eisenhower sent in the National Guard. Columbia refused to release the track with lyrics, but it’s still an extremely moving piece.

Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” is easily one of the most famous recordings in history. It’s named for experimentation with time signatures, and has heavy waltz overtones. The track, “Take 5” is the hit most associate with Brubeck, and it’s featured here in all it’s 5/4 glory.

“Time Out” is the only jazz album my great-grandfather owned. Drawn to it’s colorful cover while visiting his house in Chautauqua after school as a child, he played it for me when I asked about it. He was a Math professor at UB, who taught there up through his 90s. He was the first person to explain the mathmatical principles of music to me, and he did so with Brubeck. I haven’t told that story since I got to see Brubeck perform the album live for the 40th anniversary. Obviously, this album means a lot to me.

The non-standard time signatures are just the start with this Brubeck masterpiece. Not only does he use complicated time signatures, but he goes about them in even more complex ways. Yet, the band finds a way to always tie in the classic 4/4 to make it all swingingly palatable.

There’s a reason that “Time Out” is considered a masterpiece. It’s a masterpiece. The real deal.

Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain,” is one of his Gil Evans collaborations, and is widely considered to be the most “accessible” Miles Davis record. I discovered it my freshman year of college, and didn’t really appreciate it at first. I wasn’t ready for fusion yet, and that’s really what this record is.

I guess I didn’t catch that it’s right there in the title. Miles is paying tribute to Spanish folk music, through HIS music. It’s a Spanish folk meets Bebop fusion. It’s not typical Miles Davis. For one, it’s pretty. Second, Miles Davis typically worked with small bands and his complex arrangements were hightened by simple instrumentation. Usually a 3, 4 or 5 piece band.

“Sketches of Spain” is the opposite of that typical Miles Davis formula. It’s a large band playing sweeter, less complex (at least by jazz standards) pieces.

All three of these albums were on Columbia, and are being rereleased tomorrow. I’m very curious to see what the new packaging involves. Columbia is home to many of the great jazz records, especially the era I’m obsessed with. They were pioneers in the Hi-Fi LP, and the artists they signed shined on the new technology. If you can listen to any of these records on vinyl, it’s certainly the way to go.

Why are you still reading this? Go listen!